Globe Editorial: First Take

A troubling message from the U.S. ambassador on climate change

The Globe and Mail

U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson delivers a speech on the impact of the U.S. election on Canadian-American relations, Tuesday, December 4, 2012 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

There is something both welcome and troubling in the U.S. ambassador to Canada’s statements on Wednesday linking Canada’s efforts to fight climate change to its ability to export Alberta oil across the border. It’s welcome, because the United States has the economic clout to shift thinking on a critical global issue. But it’s also worrisome, because it remains to be seen whether the U.S. will use the same muscle on its other major trading partner and the world’s biggest polluter, China, and whether it has the political will to clean up its own house first.

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The ambassador, David Jacobson, did not explicitly say that the Keystone XL pipeline would not be approved by the White House unless Ottawa announced new limits on greenhouse gas emissions, or did more to protect waterways in the oil sands. But the implicit threat was there. Action on climate change was a signature priority in the President’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday. Through his ambassador, President Barack Obama seems to be saying that he is willing to approve the pipeline, which is opposed by environmentalists, if Canada makes a demonstrable effort to get on the climate change bandwagon. Put another way, the President needs Ottawa to give him political cover so that one of the first major decisions of his second term is not at direct odds with his new push for climate-change action.

For many, environmentalists in Canada especially, this is a happy development. Ottawa, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has become a climate-change outlier, lagging far behind the governments of other wealthy nations in their efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But it remains troubling to the point of being galling that the U.S. would implicitly threaten Canada with what would amount to a severe economic sanction if it doesn’t show support for the President’s agenda. Failing to approve the Keystone pipeline would do real damage to Canada’s economy. Why is the White House singling out Canada in so harsh a manner? Will it use the same threat of sanction against China, an equally reluctant climate change player and the world’s single biggest producer of greenhouse gases? China produces nearly 20 times the greenhouse gas emissions that Canada does.

And what of the United States itself, the world’s second largest producer of greenhouse gases? President Obama pointedly made no mention of coal in his State of the Union address. The U.S. relies on coal for as much as 35 per cent of its energy production, in spite of coal being a major contributor to greenhouse gases and its extraction being extremely damaging to the surrounding environment. Coal, however, is a political hot button in the U.S. and part of a domestic energy boom that also includes shale gas and oil extraction, both of which are strongly opposed by environmentalists.

Far easier, then, for the President to target Canada’s oil sands than the coal production of states like West Virginia and the shale gas production of Texas. It feels like Canada has been singled out as a convenient example of President Obama’s new determination on climate change. But the potential damage to Canada is out of proportion with a message that verges on double-talk.

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